Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki, Finland

Sometimes you just need to stumble upon things. Though sometimes that stumbling is guided by a good map, admittedly.

I woke up with little idea what I was going to do, abandoning thoughts of an early run once I’d wrung all I could out of a lie in. Not quite true-I carried on thinking about an early run? It was just too late to do much about it. Eventually I decided to head along the main road, past the parliament building. I saw that tours during the summer break had started just the day before, and today’s was in an hour, so wandered to the Rock Church-so called because it is hewn from rock rather than because of the music inside, which was in fact classical from a piano.

Sofa, lamp light, map on the wall, books on shelves all around
Arkadia international book store-an oasis.

From there I could stumble upon Arkadia, the international bookstore which the map had pointed out. I had some trouble working out where I was; like Derry, the map is on a surprisingly small scale, though that did give me the pleasure of thinking “but I don’t understand, it should be right he…oh” because there it was, unassuming. It is described as a local institution, and the welcome is fabulous, with the owner (I assume) encouraging a browse downstairs, “where you will go through the warehouse, please help yourself, to find the chapel, and if you go the other way you will find a snake, a map of Helsinki”. Just so cool. The chapel is a quiet room at the end-help yourself to a glass of wine, it says, leave a donation. A pleasure on a cooler day, I’m sure, and blankets have been left there to take the edge off. The pool table is €5/ hour.

After a happy ten minutes pulling out travel guides from the warehouse boxes (not a huge warehouse, I should say) I headed back to the parliament building for the tour.

We filed into the building for the tour, a few of us blokes hanging back to be last-for me, this just makes sense, I’m on my own, might as well go at the back. For others it ends up being a case of who can be more polite or of getting away from the family for a precious few moments. Our tour guide was hesitant, but then she is giving a tour in English, her third language at best. The building is symmetrical wherever possible, 1920s neo classical I think, but the symmetry reminded me of Castle Coole (baby) and Slane castle in Ireland. One American lady noticed immediately in the state room that there were four roses over the door at one end, five at the other. They represent the original five states of Finland, but that number gave the architect a problem-he always felt the building was unbalanced. Apparently he didn’t even like to drive, as that is obviously unbalanced. One good spot on the rose front led to all that entertainment.

Up popped one of my fellow laggards with “was the architect married?” which made us laugh – a question of balance? His wife happened to be next to me, it was her who had spotted the lack of symmetry and she laughed, “I know why he’s asking – I am just the same as the architect”. Ah, a case of “welcome to my world”! There are sofas all around the edge, indeed that is where OCD lady was sitting, having checked it was okay. When the guide said ‘these are the original sofas’, though, the two next to her hopped up nervously. “It’s okay, they are sturdy. And it is a working building, not a museum.” They still looked nervous, though – please insert a joke about Americans and historical perspective here.

Massive touch screen in museum
Massive tablet.

They are rightly proud that their parliament had the first female MPs, in 1907, and our guide was hoping that it wouldn’t be another hundred years before equality, though they’re further ahead than most, with 42% female mps now. The main chamber has electronic voting, with votes marked on a plan on the wall, so those watching can see immediately who voted for what. Cool, and even cooler that that’s been there since the place opened in 1931.

After that entertainment I went back to Arkadia and lounged, reading some travel books and others, making sure not to break the rules relating to the snake. Eventually I tired of such luxury and decided the sun was an even better prospect, so passed some time near the national museum before heading in. From the map it looked huge, but actually it’s quite doable in a couple of hours, assuming you’re not fascinated by the whole thing. I liked the Finland through the ages bit, even where I went through the ages backwards (bits of the museum lead through to each other when really for sense you ought to backtrack and start at another door) but less so the prehistory. The special exhibition of maps was fabulous, many of them worth millions and the presentation as a whole showing how the perception of the shape of the world has shifted. The volunteer there was enthusiastic, which helped, and very modest about her English. Only what she had from school, now a pensioner so some time since she was still able to explain some cartographic subtleties, as well as the story of Louis xiv who asked for an up to date map and could then say that he lost more land to his astronomers than his enemies. Plus England crept annoyingly closer to the coast.

Large department store, triangle shaped to fit in with roads

The nice thing about being in a city is when different things start to come together, and parts of today were like revision. Spotting the student uniform pictured and described I knew that in fact it had never really caught on; next to it was a picture from Signe Brander that reminded me of the others I’d seen.

Later I ran, aiming for the slightly below-street-level path across the city that runs in front of he parliament building. From there I ended up spotting a bridge and went over it to Lauttasaari, which has no special features marked on the map, but some nice waterfront trails.

The Belgian suggested we head out to dinner and on the way we swapped names. It has been good to have mostly the same people in the dorm, staying for similar lengths of time as we’ve swapped notes and done similar things only on different days. Still can’t tell you their names, mind. We went out without a plan, which is a bad idea on a budget and without knowing each other. Looking to check one side street we were asked for ID-or, more likely, the 21 year old Belgian and naturally younger looking 25 year old Japanese were and I had mine out too quickly for the bloke to say “not you, grandad”. We ended up in a Mexican place – no punchline to this scenario unfortunately, except that Belgian was worried the last table outside might be noisy because the band sitting around looked a bit metal. One pony tailed, the other made up. But they did some soft rock covers, a small piece of me died and it was fine. Most entertainingly, the sound obviously spread well up the (different) alley we had walked down, as people kept coming to see what was happening. As soon as the band had started up five teenagers came down the alley and stood in front, like there as going to be a crush, but that was it. Some slight tapping, but no dancing, and even though SO Duo were right in front of them, no talking during their break. It amused me. Beer and Hunter’s chicken later, I felt much better.

Summary: the run 1:08:24, 13.55km.

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